I’m here in Rwanda to teach at a university, which is meant to fill 70% of my time, with teacher training and so-called “capacity development” occupying the remaining 30%. I’ve been here for three weeks now, and I still haven’t started classes. I got a preliminary schedule assigning me classes which start next weekend, but even those are tentative- no one is quite sure of enrollment numbers at the moment. The very apple-pie American within me tries to conceal my horror as the Head of Department tells me this. Is he serious, I wonder? How can that be possible? Though not my first run-in with what is called “polychronicity,” it was the first moment here in Rwanda when that strange stab of homesickness drove into my gut. Time, and the perception of it, informs so much of who we are, whether we realize it or not.
As humans, we have this innate desire to understand the world around us, so we observe and take apart whatever we can to get to that prized result: knowledge. We’ve perfected this with the Scientific Method, a process of making a hypothesis and working toward proving it to be true or false. And we love to categorize, don’t we? The late great anthropologist Edward T. Hall, also looking for something to categorize, dealt with intangible aspects of culture, including proxemics (physical distance between people) and perception of time. For all of overseas travel, I am still unchangingly, even painfully America when it comes to proxemics. My level of discomfort rises with each human body shoved closer to me in a train or bus, the worst example of which I can recall is from Ukraine, crushed into a tiny bus with my face literally shoved into the armpit of a very tall man. I needed two beers, a walk around the square, and five solid minutes of silence to recover from that one.
More applicable to my experience here has been Hall’s conceptualization of time: monochronic vs. polychronic. People of a monochronic time culture, for example, view “time as money”; the quantity is finite and limited. Time moves in a linear direction- forward, until it ends and there is no more time. Consider a few American sayings. Literally, “well, time is money.” “I haven’t got time for that (or “ain’t nobody got time for that”). As a result, according to Hall, U.S. culture (like other monochronic cultures) “stresses adherence to preset schedules and completion of tasks over social relationships.” That seems a little bit harsh, but think about it. Take the example of a funeral: it has a start time and a time that it is expected to end. We have an expectation to revel in sadness or celebration, but there is an understanding that the time for that celebration is at least somewhat fixed.
Polychronic, obviously, is the opposite. A polychronic culture “stresses involvement of people and completion of transactions rather than adherence to preset schedules. Appointments are not taken as seriously and, as a consequence, are frequently broken. For polychronic people, time is seldom experienced as ‘wasted,’ and is apt to be considered a point rather than a ribbon or a road” (Hall, 1983, p. 43). How neat and nice that seems, right? People are valued over business, time is of infinite quality, events are hours and hours of human interaction in building those essential relationships. Among my friends, we joke about our notions of time: Mexican time runs an hour behind white time, and Asian time finds itself somewhere in the middle. Whatever it is, polychronic cultures are different, and serve to frustrate Americans to no end. As a teacher, my schedule has become operational in my life. I need my teaching schedule to plan my life. I need my class times and dates- isn’t that how everyone operates?
What have I learned? No. It’s not how everyone operates. And it’s not even necessarily the best way to operate. Without my schedule, I have thrown myself headfirst into what I can only call “hustling” – attempting to form connections, meet other people, and gather more information. My webbed network of educators, Americans, expats, students, and market ladies is slowly increasing, driven by my own uncertainty of what else to do with my time until I know my schedule. And while I may (or may not) begin my classes next Friday evening, I’m becoming better at wrapping my head around the uncertainty of it all- which has effectively become the only certainty I know. And that’s strangely comforting.
Goats, blissfully unaware of time, eating a soccer field behind my university